There’s a thing where you’d like to have one “quality of mind”, but it’s not available, but you substitute it with a kind of a fake or alternative version of the same. Which is fine as long as you realize you’re doing it, but becomes an issue if you forget that what’s happening.

For example, you have a job that you’re sometimes naturally motivated to do and sometimes you totally don’t feel like it. On the days when you don’t feel motivated, you substitute the motivation with an act of just making yourself do it.

Which of course makes sense: it’s hard to be motivated all the time, and if you need to work anyway, then you need to find some substitute.

But what happens if you forget that you’re doing this, and forget what it actually feels like to be naturally motivated?

Then you might find yourself doing the mental motion of “pushing yourself” all the time and wonder why it is that you keep struggling with motivation and why work feels so unenjoyable. You might think that the answer is to push yourself more, or to find more effective ways of pushing yourself.

And then you might wonder why it is that even when you do manage to more successfully push yourself, you keep feeling depressed. After all, the pushing was a substitute for situations when you’re not enjoying yourself, but need to work anyway!

But it might be that you constantly pushing yourself is a part of the problem. It’s hard to be naturally motivated if you don’t give yourself the time (or if your external circumstances don’t give you the time) to actually let that motivation emerge on its own.

That’s not to say that just easing off on the pushing would necessarily be sufficient. Often there’s a reason for why the pushing became the default response; the original motivation was somehow blocked, and you need to somehow identify what’s keeping it blocked.

It’s easiest to talk about this in the context of motivation. Most people probably have some sense of the difference between feeling naturally motivated and pushing yourself to do something. But in my experience, the same dynamic can emerge in a variety of contexts, such as:

  • Trying to ‘do’ creative inspiration, vs. actually having inspiration
  • Trying to ‘do’ empathy, vs. actually having empathy
  • Trying to ‘do’ sexual arousal, vs. actually getting aroused
  • Trying to quiet your feelings, vs. actually having self-compassion

As well as more subtle mental motions that I have difficulty putting into exact words.

The more general form of the thing seems to be something like… a part of the brain may sometimes be triggered and create an enjoyable and ‘useful’ state of mind. Typically these states of mind are more accessible if you’re feeling safe and not feeling stressed.

When you are more stressed, or the original states are otherwise blocked off, another part of the mind observes that it would be useful to have that original state again. So it tries to somehow copy or substitute for it, but because it doesn’t have access to the systems that would actually trigger that state, it ends up with an imperfect substitute that only somewhat resembles the original one.

What needs to happen next depends on the exact situation, but the first step is to notice that this is happening, and that “keep doing the thing but harder” isn’t necessarily the solution.


My friend Annie comments:

The easiest way for me to identify when I’m doing this is if there start to be phrases / mantras / affirmations that frequently pop into my head uninvited, and it’s the exact same phrase each time. Used to happen all the time at my stressful marketing job.

It’s as if one part of my brain is trying to push the rest of my brain to be the kind of person who would naturally think/say that, but because I think in concepts by default (followed by written words, followed by audio, followed by visual), I’ve learned to question the authenticity of thoughts that present themselves as audio first.

Personally I notice the “lifeless phrases first” thing in the context of self-compassion. Actually feeling compassion towards myself, vs. the kind of mental speech that sounds vaguely comforting but is actually about hushing up the emotion or trying to explain why it’s unnecessary / wrong / already taken care of.

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